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Learning from experience


Ecclesiastes 7:1-14

EXPERIENCE, it is often said, is a great teacher. But, as J. A. Froude is quick to add, “experience teaches slowly, and at the cost of mistakes”. Even a cursory study of history will reveal that human beings are very slow learners, given our longstanding habit of repeating the

mistakes of the past.

Each succeeding generation seems wont to reinvent the wheels of public ethics and personal morals, demonstrating a strange reticence to the lessons of history. Be that as it may, that we learn many, if not most, of our best lessons through personal experiences – often from painful setbacks and failures – is an indisputable fact.

The theme of “learning from experience” is taken up in Ecclesiastes 7 where the Preacher, in his characteristic down-to-earth manner, draws his readers’ attention to life’s many vicissitudes. There is, however, a marked change in approach: instead of his accustomed style of reflecting and arguing, he now bombards his readers with proverbs, all aimed at creating impact.

These proverbs, quarried from years of oral tradition, are sharper in the original Hebrew than their English translations can render. They relate to matters close to the heart of the Preacher’s thinking.

The first part of the first proverb (verse 1a) is easy to understand, even for modern readers who live in a different era from the writer of Ecclesiastes and who belong to a different culture. “A good name is better than perfume”: the former represents something of the essential character of a person – reputation and integrity – while the latter signify something cosmetic and superficial. But the second part of the proverb baffles: “and the day of death better than the day of birth” (verse 1b).

The point the Preacher wishes to make is that when we are confronted by death, not birth, we are compelled to reflect on the fleetingness of life, and thus on life’s meaning. This point is brought home by the second and third proverbs: “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting … Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart” (2-3).

Here the Preacher’s arguments anticipate that of the existentialist philosopher of the last century, Martin Heidegger, who maintains that the reality and prospect of death define life. For the Preacher, however, it is not that death defines life, but that it forces us to look at life more seriously. Simply put, death and sorrow may sadden our faces, but they sharpen our understanding, and they teach us things that we otherwise will not learn.

urning to a different subject, verses 5-6 make the point that the wise would prefer the admonition of a wise man than the “song”, that is, the empty praises, of fools. This saying, which finds echoes in Proverb 27:5-6 (“The kisses of an enemy may be profuse, but faithful are the wounds of a friend”), is not difficult to understand. The rebuke from a faithful and wise friend is worth the pain it necessarily inflicts, and the wise person will receive it appreciatively and heed it enthusiastically.

In the next four verses (7-10), the Preacher turns his attention to the various obstacles in life that would frustrate, and offers counsel on how they can either be avoided or overcome.

The first obstacle or trapping – extortion or bribe – can be generalised as “the power that other people can exercise over us that would manipulate, dominate and eventually destroy us”. The Preacher exhorts his readers to identify the pressures that would dehumanise us by undermining our moral convictions and value systems, and to retreat from them even as they encroach on our lives.

The second pitfall is pride, which has been rightly described as the offspring of self-worship”. Notice that the Preacher contrasts patience, not with impatience, but with pride – that inflated self-esteem that has the capacity to distort our understanding of ourselves in relation to others.

The third danger is a logical extension of pride, namely, impatient outrage when things do not go according to plan. To those given to such quick-tempered emotional outrages, the Preacher warns that “anger resides in the lap of fools”, echoing yet another ancient proverb which says, “People with a hot temper do foolish things; wiser people remain calm” (Prov 14:17).

The final trapping has to do with nostalgic dwelling on the past, which is often accompanied by the regret that harks back to those “good old days”. It is this vain attempt to pine at the past, to “live life in reverse”, so to speak, and not merely to reminisce about the past, that the Preacher warns against. By this warning he stresses that our lives are lived now and in the future, and that although our experience in the past is important, it must drive us forward to the future that God has in store for us.

How are we to meet the vicissitudes, uncertainties and hard knocks of life and not be crushed by them? In verses 11-12, the Preacher stresses the importance of God-given wisdom. The person who possesses such wisdom will not be easily demolished when he encounters the difficulties and exigencies of life.

Wisdom will protect such a person so that he will be able to take the challenges of life in his stride with quiet calm and not be given to panic and despair. Wisdom will be his shelter in the storms of life. But wisdom serves yet another function: it preserves the life of the wise. Wisdom alerts him to the dangers and pitfalls of life, and prevents him from making decisions for which he will later regret.

As Gordon Keddie puts it, in this passage the Preacher teaches that “God-given wisdom is the key to redeeming the multi-faceted experiences of life”.

Dr Roland Chia, Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at Trinity Theological College, worships at Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.


How are we to meet the vicissitudes, uncertainties and hard knocks of life and not be crushed by them? In verses 11-12, the Preacher stresses the importance of God-given wisdom. The person who possesses such wisdom will not be easily demolished when he encounters the difficulties and exigencies of life.